Lone Star Leadership
Preserving the Hallowed Ground of Texas at Palmito Ranch & Sabine Pass
By William A. McWhorter; Hallowed Ground Magazine, Winter 2009
Early in the Civil War, the Trans-Mississippi Department learned to rely on Texas ports as an outlet for European cotton sales and the import of essential supplies. Mexico assisted the Confederate smuggling effort, and border towns prospered. Protection of Texas ports and borders was of utmost concern to Confederate forces in the state. Although the Union had gained control of much of the Texas coast by January 1864, the occupation proved only temporary. In the summer of 1864, Union troops began to withdraw from the Texas coast to focus more attention on campaigns in the East. What Union forces remained were limited to coastal defenses in support of blockading measures, including those on the northern tip of Brazos Island at Brazos Santiago Depot, with its proximity to Fort Brown. From this post, Union forces marched toward Brownsville in May 1865, resulting in armed conflict more than one month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. In this last engagement, primarily in defense of the Southern economy, Texans won the battle and laid claim to the last land victory of the Civil War.
Palmito Ranch Battlefield
Following the 1997 NHL nomination, local preservationists — hoping to add to the written scholarship on the battlefield’s history and confirming its boundaries — produced a series of reports, including a 1999 Battlefield Core Area Identification Report and a 2001 Cultural Resource Research, Identification and Documentation National Park Service Resource Reconnaissance Survey. These extensive reports have provided historians and preservationists with valuable information on the locations of significant sites of action during the two-day battle.
The new information gleaned from these reports played a role in CWPT’s 2001 decision to support local preservationists by purchasing three acres of hallowed ground within the boundaries of the NHL at the core battlefield area. At the time there was discussion of potential legislation to authorize the National Park Service to allow nearby Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (then National Historic Site) — a Mexican-American War site — to establish a unit at Palmito Ranch and provide interpretation and visitor services. Although this initiative did not materialize, CWPT has continued to be instrumental in assisting the THC and local historic preservation groups with efforts to protect the neglected battlefield. The site’s major topographical features remain intact and retain exceptional integrity almost 145 years after the battle.
Park Day at Palmito Ranch Battlefield has since spurred a number of preservation activities by the Military Sites Program of the THC toward increasing interpretation of this endangered battlefield. Since 2008, the THC has steadily built a network of regional and national partners that now includes CWPT, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, the Brownsville Historical Association, the Cameron County Historical Commission and the South Padre Island Historical Foundation. The largest project the THC has initiated regarding Palmito Ranch Battlefield was made possible by a generous 2009 preservation grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP), which promotes the preservation of significant historic battlefields associated with wars on American soil. The ABPP had previously funded the 2001 Cultural Resource Research, Identification and Documentation National Park Service Resource Reconnaissance Survey for Palmito Ranch.
Although identified as a potentially resource-rich location in previous reports, no onsite archeological or survey work has yet been conducted on Palmito Hill itself. The 2009 ABPP grant will provide funding to the THC to conduct a non-invasive archeological survey on Palmito Hill in hopes of determining if the site may have hosted the advance or retreat of Union troops during the battle. The THC’s Archaeology Division with volunteer support from the National Park Service’s nearby Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park will supervise a basic magnetometer survey for the mapping of three acres. Set to begin in early 2010, the non-invasive reconnaissance survey will ideally ascertain a portion of the hill’s archeological integrity and potential to tell more of the battle’s story.
In an effort to accomplish the remaining objectives of the ABPP grant — engaging a larger, more diverse audience in the battlefield and promoting its unique international Civil War history in hopes of encouraging heritage tourism and preservation of the site — the Military History Sites Program of the THC has begun facilitating public meetings in Cameron County to build an engaged constituency for the battlefield. The first of four meetings took place in September 2009 in Brownsville.
Palmito Ranch is capable of telling a far more encompassing story of the Confederacy’s cotton trade and the crucial role Texas played in the South’s pursuit of international recognition and economic viability than has been written. To that point, the third grant objective, the production of 50,000 heritage tourism travel brochures, is expected to inform the public about the site and generate greater regional support for its preservation and enhancement as the country nears the sesquicentennial observances of the Civil War.
Sabine Pass Battleground
Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site highlights the September 8, 1863, story of Confederate Lt. Richard “Dick” Dowling and his 46 men who thwarted an attempted Union attack on Sabine Pass, a primary Texas port for Confederate supplies vital to the war effort. To prevent a viable, Confederate trade route through Mexico, President Abraham Lincoln sent a force to capture Sabine Pass, near the Louisiana border, and begin the occupation of Texas. The only Confederate line of defense was a few dozen artillerists manning six cannons inside Fort Griffin. In a battle lasting less than an hour, Dowling and his men destroyed two gunboats, inflicted significant casualties and captured nearly 350 prisoners. The successful defense by the outnumbered Texan defenders was one of the most lopsided victories of the entire war. Thanks to their efforts, area ports escaped capture and Union forces failed to penetrate the Texas interior.
The THC is committed to the concept of heritage tourism and believes in its financial and preservation values. Working with CWPT and local preservation partners at Sabine Pass and Palmito Ranch, all involved parties hope to ensure the sites’ preservation for future generations to remember the important role Texas played during a seminal event in our nation’s history, the American Civil War.
William A. McWhorter
William A. McWhorter is a military historian at the Texas Historical Commission in Austin. In addition to managing fundraising for the Texas Historical Commission Civil War Monuments program, he coordinates the commission’s Sesquicentennial efforts.